Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Stanley Cup Finals Preview
by T.O. Whenham

After several years that have failed to entertain anyone outside the hardcore hockey fans, the NHL finally has a Stanley Cup Finals worthy of their dreams. In the Pittsburgh Penguins they have a young and exciting team that is helmed by Sidney Crosby, the most marketable star in the league. In the Detroit Red Wings they have an experienced, respected team of stars that play in the strongest hockey market outside of Canada. There isn't another matchup that would have been better for the league, and the much-improved TV ratings are proof of it. Beyond just the business side, this matchup should also be a dream for fans and bettors. Both teams can score, they are both fun to watch, and they offer the best possible chance of an interesting final.

Oddsmakers seem to favor experience over potential. The Red Wings are -160 favorites to win the series, leaving the Penguins as +150 underdogs.

The Red Wings are enjoying a sustained strong period as a franchise. They won the President's Trophy this year - awarded to the team that earns the most points in the regular season - and it was the fourth time they had done so since the turn of the century. The regular season success hasn't translated to the postseason, though - they have won three of the last 10 Stanley Cups, but none since 2002. Recent history has not been as kind to the Penguins. They have two Stanley Cup wins, but those date back to the Mario Lemieux glory years of the early 1990s. Before last year, when they lost to Ottawa in the first round, they had missed the playoffs four-straight years.

Pittsburgh's revival is no surprise. They picked first or second overall in the draft four years in a row starting in 2003, and they hit a home run each time. Marc-Andre Fleury came first, and he is now their franchise goaltender. Evgeni Malkin was next. He isn't at the same level as Crosby, but he isn't very far off. Crosby was next - a total no-brainer. Finally, Jordan Staal joined the team in the 2006 draft. He's the lowest-profile star on this team, but he's already good enough that he'd be a star on any team in the league. With a core like that it's not a wonder that things turned around quickly. Around that core management has done a great job of building a solid team. They've combined homegrown talent like Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney and Maxime Talbot with talented and experienced veterans like Sergei Gonchar, Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora. Marian Hossa was added at the trade deadline this season and was the final piece of the puzzle for the team. When Crosby, Malkin and Hossa are in form, as they have been throughout the playoffs, there isn't a team in the league that can keep up to their scoring pace.

This current squad of young players might not have a ton of playoff experience, but they sure haven't shown it. They have played just 14 games so far - two more than the minimum. They swept Ottawa in the first round, and beat the Rangers and Philadelphia in five games. They have yet to lose a home game. In both of their last two series they have had poor performances in the fourth game with a chance to sweep, but they have bounced back both times with good game five showings. Perhaps the biggest fear is that they haven't been challenged to nearly the same extent that they will be when they face the Red Wings.

It's not hard to figure out the major difference between the Red Wings and the Penguins. Crosby, Pittsburgh's captain, is 20 years old. Detroit's captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, is 38. Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is 23. Detroit has 35-year-old Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek, who is 43. The oldest player who is contributing to Pittsburgh's success in the playoffs is 34-year-old Sergei Gonchar. Detroit has nine key players who are older than that, including 46-year-old Chris Chelios. Detroit's youngest core player is 24-year-old Jiri Hudler. Five of Pittsburgh's best players are younger. Age is the single biggest factor in this series. All you have to do is figure out what kind of a factor it will be, and who it benefits.

Detroit is stacked with star players, but it's Lidstrom who is the engine. It would be hard not to call him the best defenseman in the league - He has won the Norris Trophy for top defenseman in five of the last six seasons. He is an absolute rock,, and the leader of a very solid defensive corps. Despite that, though, this is not a team that relies on winning low-scoring games. Their top two offensive stars - Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have 21 and 19 points in the playoffs respectively - the same totals as Crosby and Malkin.

Detroit's path to the finals hasn't been quite as smooth as Pittsburgh's, but it hasn't exactly been a struggle either - they have only played 16 games, and they swept Colorado in the second round. One slightly disturbing habit has emerged - they let both Nashville and Dallas win two games in a row after it looked like Detroit was firmly in command. That seems to have been the result of lapses in concentration, and Pittsburgh is better equipped than any team in the league to capitalize on those lapses if they occur. On the other hand, when Detroit has been in their best form they have looked better than any team in the league, including Pittsburgh.

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Re: Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Stanley Cup Finals Preview
By Judd Hall

No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 1 Detroit Red Wings

Series Price: Detroit -180, Pittsburgh +150

Series Format: Detroit, 2-2-1-1-1

Skinny: I don’t know how they did it, but Gary Bettman and NBC got the Stanley Cup Finals he’s been dreaming of ever since the 2004-2005 lockout. And it’s not just because of name recognition either…It’s because both clubs were truly the best teams in the NHL.

The Penguins took the shorter of the two paths to make it into the Promised Land, playing just 13 games. They enacted a small part of revenge in slaughtering the Sens in the first round, made short work of the Rangers in the Eastern Semifinals and finished it off with a demoralizing sweep of the Flyers.

Most people would think that Pittsburgh’s offense runs solely through Sidney Crosby at first blush. It’s hard not to disagree with that thinking since he led the team with 120 points last season en route to his first Hart Memorial Trophy.

Crosby also leads all skaters with 19 points this postseason, but he’s not who the opposition should be worry about. That honor goes to the Pens’ Hart finalist this season, Evgeni Malkin. The 21-year old from Magnitogorsk sat behind the steering wheel and put up 106 points during the regular season as Crosby was laid up with a bad ankle for much of the second half of the year. Malkin is tied for second amongst all players with 18 points in the playoffs.

The Pens aren’t all offense either…just as the Flyers. Philadelphia made it into the Eastern Finals thanks in large part to bullying teams that liked to attack. They attempted to do the same to their Keystone State rivals and found out that Pittsburgh could not only absorb the punishment, but hit back. I guess Philly should have realized that ahead of time seeing as the Penguins are third in the playoffs with 180 penalty minutes.

Sergei Gonchar, Darryl Sydor and Hal Gill get much of the credit for Pittsburgh’s tough blue line play. However, their hard work would go for naught had it not been for Marc-Andre Fleury holding down the fort in goal. Fleury has a 1.74 goals against average en route to the Stanley Cup Finals while stopping 93.7 percent of the shot fired his way.

All is not coming up roses for the Penguins’ netminder. Fleury’s stick handling was poor on more than one occasion against the Flyers. That could pose a problem against a team like Detroit that is well known for making the most of the opposition’s mistakes.

Detroit was the team that many felt would be playing into June when the season began. And they haven’t disappointed by making it through Nashville, Colorado and Dallas to their 23rd Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

The Red Wings possess one of the best offenses in the league this season, scoring 252 goals over the year. Detroit is a three-headed monster in terms of visiting the red light district with Henrik Zetterberg (43), Pavel Datsyuk (31) and Johan Franzen (27). Out of that group, Franzen has been the leader with 12 goals. The only issue being is that he’s been laid up with concussion like symptoms since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

Now I know you’re not going to see offense come through every night for the Wings. When those occasions happen, Detroit relies on a defense that gave up a league low 179 goals. That is due to having a veteran group of blue liners like Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall pushing the opposition back.

Detroit isn’t slacking in goal either by sending Chris Osgood between the pipes. Osgood has won a Cup for the Wings back in the 90s as their top netminder. Yet they were going to play Dominik Hasek. You know the guy…he’ll play a puck that about 100 feet away from his crease. Never mind the fact that three forwards are coming his way. This is just one of the many reasons Osgood replaced him during the series against Nashville.

Gambling Notes: Unfortunately with NHL being so stupid with their scheduling, we’ve not seen these teams meet on the ice since the 2003 season. That being said, the Wings won eight out their last 13 meetings with Pittsburgh dating back to Feb. 1996.

In fact, the home team has won eight of the last 13 matches between the two squads. Meanwhile, the ‘over’ is 7-6.

Will that home ice trend hold true here? I bet it will as neither club lost a home playoff game this season.

Outlook: This is a tough series to pick a winner in mainly because both teams are equally strong in pretty much every aspect.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and take the Penguins in this series in six games. The value you get on a team that is young and light years ahead of where they were last season are just too good to pass up.

All it will take is one win on the road…just one. Once that victory is in the bag, the Stanley Cup will soon follow.

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Re: Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Youth serves Pens, experience paces Red Wings
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While the Detroit Red Wings count postseason victories on the tentacles of octopi, both they and the Pittsburgh Penguins can chart their playoff losses on the fingers of one hand - and still have some left over.

It's been quite a run to the Stanley Cup finals for this year's NHL conference champions, who have combined for 24 wins and only six losses along the way.

Back when it took only eight wins to claim the Cup in the Original Six era, octopi starting hitting the ice in Detroit to provide a symbolic squid-like countdown of tentacles to the championship. Even though the necessary win total has doubled, the tradition still exists at Joe Louis Arena.

The Red Wings rolled through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-4 mark, sandwiching six-game victories over Nashville and Dallas around a sweep of Colorado.

Pittsburgh stormed through the East, grabbing 3-0 leads against Ottawa, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia. New York and Philadelphia both managed home wins in Game 4 to stay alive only to be eliminated two days later in Pittsburgh. The Penguins are 8-0 in the playoffs at home and have a 16-game winning streak there dating to a shootout loss to San Jose on Feb. 24.

Adding in the first-round sweep of Ottawa, the Penguins are a sparkling 12-2 overall.

Each team relies on big-name forwards to carry the offensive load and both have solid supporting casts. Don't be fooled, though. The Penguins and Red Wings have ridden a strong defensive presence - up front and on the blue line - with exceptional goaltending to get this far, too.

Detroit had a league-high 115 points in the regular season, while Pittsburgh earned the No. 2 seed in the East with 102.

''Both teams are very similar,'' said Penguins forward Ryan Malone, a Pittsburgh native. ''The way we played through our playoffs, I think we earned our chance out of the East. I think the same for them. I think we match up pretty similar, which is kind of scary.''

So is the sheer collection of talent and marquee-quality star power that will be on display beginning Saturday night in the series opener. The names are familiar even to those who might not have tuned into Versus much throughout the long NHL season.

Pittsburgh boasts reigning MVP Sidney Crosby - who is only 20 - and fellow young forward Evgeni Malkin, a finalist for the award this season at age 21. The Red Wings are powered up front by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who combined for 74 goals and 189 points in the regular season.

Johan Franzen is still the Red Wings' playoff leader with 12 goals, but he hasn't played since Game 1 of the conference finals because of post-concussion symptoms. His status for the next round is uncertain.

On the back end, Detroit is led by Nicklas Lidstrom, who is in line for his sixth Norris Trophy and his second three-peat as the NHL's top defenseman. Chris Osgood has been exceptional in goal since taking over in the first round from shaky Dominik Hasek.

Osgood is 10-2 with a 1.60 goals-against average in 13 games, losing two tough decisions to Dallas after his nine-game winning streak carried the Red Wings to a 3-0 lead over the Stars in the conference finals.

The 35-year-old Osgood is arguably on a more impressive run now than the one that led to the Red Wings' second straight Cup title back in 1998 during his first stint with Detroit.

''Responding like he did back then, that's the way he's been playing for us now, too,'' Lidstrom said. ''He's mentally strong where he can just put things behind him, forget about a bad rebound, bad goal. He keeps on going for us. That's huge for the guys, to see the way he's responding to all the challenges.''

The same can be said for Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who at 23 is finally showing the ability that led Pittsburgh to select him No. 1 in the 2003 draft. While recovering from an ankle injury that limited him to 35 regular-season games, he saw backup Ty Conklin keep the Penguins in the hunt for first in the East.

Upon his return, Fleury proved to coach Michel Therrien that he was the one to carry the Penguins through the playoffs. In 14 postseason games, Fleury has a 1.70 GAA and has stopped 364 of 388 shots.

The Red Wings of 1997 and '98 were the last repeat champions. Before that, the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins in 1991 and '92 were the previous back-to-back winners. Those marked Pittsburgh's only previous appearances in the Stanley Cup finals.

Detroit earned its last title in 2002 with a five-game win over Carolina, the last time both finalists came from the Eastern time zone.

The Red Wings and Penguins didn't meet in the regular season and have never matched up in the postseason. In fact, the cities haven't faced off with a pro title on the line in any sport since the 1909 World Series, when the Steel City's Pirates topped the Detroit Tigers 4-3.

Back then, the big names were future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb. This time, Pittsburgh's Crosby, Malkin and Marian Hossa, and Detroit's Lidstrom, Hasek, and 46-year-old Chris Chelios more than fit the bill.

''I've watched them on TV,'' Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said of the Penguins. ''We played them in exhibition. Malkin wasn't in the game. I was very impressed with their team then. They've got high skill level, big forwards. The back end moves the puck. Their goaltender is playing well.

''In our league now, everybody's good. For two to be remaining, they must be very good. Their transition is fantastic. They have a bunch of kids that can really skate. It's going to be a huge challenge for us.''

Kids is quite the operative word when it comes to the high-flying Penguins, who have incorporated a defensive-minded trap to balance out the offense. Both teams thrive in possessing the puck for long stretches of games and forcing mistakes to get it back and transition to the attack.

So the age-old question exists: will youthful legs be enough to offset the vast experience owned by the Red Wings?

The average age of the Penguins, who have played in at least one playoff game this year, is 27.9 - compared to 32.3 for Detroit. The Red Wings have 10 players on their roster who have captured the Cup, combining for 23 championships. Pittsburgh has three former winners, totaling four titles.

The Penguins have risen quickly after having the second-fewest points in the league just two seasons ago.

''It has the makings of what should be a great final with two really good, skilled hockey teams,'' Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. ''There's the added mystery of not playing each other this year. I think that adds to the element.''

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